Over the past few months I have been visiting communities across Australia and have heard about what is working and what our communities believe needs to change when it comes to our mental health system.
This is not just a listening tour but one with a serious and tangible outcome. I have been tasked, alongside my colleagues at the National Mental Health Commission, to better understand what the future of our mental health system could be. These insights will inform the 2030 Vision for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention and are, what I hope, just the start of an ongoing national and local conversation about continuous improvement.
As part of what we call Connections, the Commission visited 26 communities across Australia to hold Town Hall meetings to which anyone with a lived experience of mental health — consumers, carers, families and those organisations which provide support and care — were invited to attend. We also ran an online survey to hear from thousands of people outside of those areas.
We heard from you that there are pockets of fantastic services within our country driven by talented health professionals and dedicated people with lived experience We also heard from consumers and carers across Australia that many of you experience barriers in trying to get help.
What could shift our mental health system in a positive direction in a big way in the next ten years?
Everyone’s experience of the mental health system is different. As well as identifying what is not working, I have been asking people to share with me their ‘big ideas’. Imagine what could be possible outside of the existing frameworks? What could shift our mental health system in a positive direction in a big way in the next ten years?
We heard support for some of the innovative ideas already being funded and tested at present including alternatives to Emergency Departments such as crisis cafes and drop in centres, cross community access to mental health and suicide first aid training, strengthening of our peer workforce and more consistent mental health support in our schools and workplaces.
But we also heard, loud and clear, about the imperative to recognise the social determinants of mental health and suicide, and the urgent need to look at effective policy shifts as well as interventions that can reduce their impacts and address the root causes of these experiences.
It is clear we need to have a mental health system that supports people to live well with mental illness as well as other health and psychosocial risk factors such as alcohol and other drug problems, relationship issues, legal issues, unemployment, homelessness, disability, bullying, loss of a loved one and impacts of chronic health conditions.
While our health services, community organisations and funded mental health and suicide prevention programs certainly have a critical role to play, we must consider the broad range of issues impacting on people’s lives and consider all of the touchpoints where we have an opportunity to make a positive difference.
I heard about the resilience of those in remote communities, small towns and cities as people pull together to fill whatever gaps they can to provide support for each other in tough times. I heard about the frustration of those who are trying to navigate the current system of support.
So, what does this mean for everyday Australians?
…there is a real opportunity for us to come together on this issue, but we must think more broadly than we have been.
In essence, I work for you and it is my job to support your voices to be heard in the Government’s future planning. I am encouraged by the Government’s commitment to stretch our thinking and am personally and professionally passionate about the experiences of those who’ve been there being front and centre of these ambitions.
In my view, there is a real opportunity for us to come together on this issue, but we must think more broadly than we have been.
Together, we need to envisage a long-term future when Australians at risk of, or experiencing, mental health concerns and suicidality can access a connected and well-functioning system.
I have been humbled by the willingness of many to share their personal experiences of the mental health system, with each story sharing many similarities while also being unique to every individual. I acknowledge and thank each of you who have shared and continue to share so openly with me and my team. You are at the centre of everything we do, and I appreciate your candour.
Over the next fifteen months I will be working with government Ministers and departments, community leaders, and those with diverse expertise, to bring advice to the table on how we can improve the co-ordination and delivery of a whole-of-government response to mental health and suicide. I hope to continue to connect with as many of you as possible as we formulate that advice.